Before Black Swan was released, but when the hype machine was already in overdrive, I stated on one film message board: “Aronofsky has earned my willingness to see any film he makes. Even his failures are interesting.” Indeed, Aronofsky may be the most interesting young American director working today, if only because with every film he genuinely seems to be shooting for the moon in an age where most directors are much more modest in their ambitions. But he also makes the kinds of films that are as fraught with faults as they are strengths. In many respects, I’ll take interesting failures over uninteresting successes any day, because it’s often just a matter of time before those faults are transformed into strengths upon reconsideration.
I’m also a bit of a contrarian in that, to date, I think Aronofsky’s best film is The Fountain, if only because I think it fits that “ambitious, always interesting, but somewhat of a failure” paradigm better than any other. It’s also a film completely out of tune with the times. Here’s this grandly allegorical, melodramatic meditation on love and death full of neo-classical devices (color symbolism, rampant visual motifs, contrasting/parallel time periods) in an age that’s all about cool, detached cynicism. Yet I also found it one of the most deeply moving films of the last decade, as well as one of the most visually astounding. I’ve less admired Aronofsky’s more realistic efforts such as Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, though I also found the visually and narratively inventive Pi an idiosyncratic thriller.
Black Swan might be seen as Aronofsky’s attempt to mediate the realist and metaphorical worlds, finding a middle ground between drunken romantic classicism and something more sober and down to Earth. It stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a meek, reserved, introverted, perfectionist ballerina who works incredibly hard at her craft while also living at home with her stifling but encouraging and vicarious mother (Barbara Hershey). When the prima ballerina from her company (Winona Ryder) retires, Nina seeks the lead role in “Swan Lake”, even though the director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is unsure if she can conjure up the darkness and looseness necessary to play the role of the Black Swan as well as the white. To complicate matters, a new girl named Lily (Mila Kunis) has arrived, and she becomes the loose, dark, and extroverted mirror to Nina. The two form a tentative friendship, but when Nina finds out that Lily is her alternate, her sense of self and reality begins breaking down as real darkness creeps into her being.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Black Swan is its variety of influence and predecessors. It’s possible to boil the film down to the surrealist, psychological thriller genre, which would immediately call to mind Hitchcock. Of course, Hitchcock will always loom as the largest shadow over all thrillers, but Aronofsky’s influences get more specific. If we narrow it down to psychological thrillers involving women we might come more to Polanski and De Palma, and I’m especially thinking of the former’s Repulsion and The Tenant, and the latter’s Sisters. Repulsion especially has many relevant parallels to Black Swan, beginning with a rather meek young woman who has a gradual psychotic breakdown. Meanwhile, the mother/daughter relationship calls to mind Haneke’s more recent The Piano Teacher, although the sexual tensions, as well as Haneke’s and Aronofsky’s directing styles, couldn’t be farther apart.
But Aronofsky has an even more specific influence in Japanese anime director Satoshi Kon and, in particular, his 1998 film Perfect Blue. There’s even a website that has documented the similarities1, but a quick synopsis of the film will largely suffice. Perfect Blue (to quote that website) “is a chilling psycho-thriller about Mima, a young (pop) star who embraces the darkness within her in order to achieve her dream (becoming an actress), willing to alienate everyone who cares about her to do so. Mima has an overbearing but loving maternal figure (her manager, Rumi) who doesn’t approve of her new shady career choices. She is emotionally tormented by an unknown outsider who begins to destroy Mima’s already tenuous grasp on reality, and Mima is soon haunted by a doppelganger who represents both her mental anguish and the duality of her soul.” The most interesting thing about this is that Aronofsky has categorically denied the claim of influence, even though he notes the similarities and even though he directly referenced a scene from Perfect Blue in Requiem for a Dream, even purchasing the rights in order to do so.
However strong and strongly-felt the influences, good films should still be able to hold up on their own, and that question of individual distinction is at the core of Black Swan. Perhaps my biggest complaint with this film is that there’s a predictable unpredictability to it. It sets up its mystery, mainly tied to the apparent subjectivity of Nina’s perspective, which complicates our grasp of what is reality and what is merely the manifestations of her psychosis, but then plays it out by routine rather than invention. This is where the influences intrude too much as there’s only so many places one can go with these types of psychological thrillers, and I’m fairly sure all the possibilities have been exhausted. So if we can’t charge Aronofsky and Black Swan with being original, can we at least say it’s thrilling? Yes, I think we can.
Despite the multitude of obvious influences and the predictable trekking down old paths, I think Aronofsky still sells his drama, sells the thrills, and sells the involvement. Much of this is thanks to Natalie Portman. Aronofsky could not have found a better actress to embody the “pure” starlet who has, thus far, resisted the darker and seedier sides of the industry, including in the roles she’s played. From a writing perspective, her transformation from the submissive and passive “White Swan” to the strong and assertive “Black Swan” doesn’t quite make sense, but Portman manages to convince us otherwise. The best choice Aronofsky makes is to constantly focus on her face, and gestures, so every emotion and change registers on the viewer.
Aronofsky’s direction here is much closer to the roughness of Requiem and The Wrestler to the more poised and elegant The Fountain, although I think it works better in this context. His camera is constantly on the move, either when swirling with the dancers or when viscerally following them with shaky-cam. One of his favorite stylistic devices has become the behind-the-back following jump/match-cut, which compresses time while locking focus on his subject (he uses it at least three times in this film). One element he does retain from The Fountain is color motifs, although they’re much less intrusive here. While they more predictably revolve around black and white, there’s also plenty of pink and greens, providing eerie bursts of color amongst the drab, more monochrome palette.
One reason I think his more viscerally styled direction works here is that it balances well against the melodramatic bent to the narrative. Melodrama is a particularly apt description, because while it does refer more commonly to exaggerated plot and characters, it comes from the root “melos” meaning “music”. Both music and exaggerations play a prominent role in the film, and they’re the elements that situate it more in the realm of neo-classical fantasy as opposed to a more sober, objective perspective à la Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. While Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” provides the core of the music, Clint Mansell’s radical variations and changes create a bizarre hybrid of classical music and modern film score, which equals out to a score that’s situated in the realm of classic film scores of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, especially during the dramatic crescendos that Aronofsky uses unabashedly.
Yet, if I go back to the “interesting failure” aspects of the film there are others that shouldn’t escape mentioning. Especially glaring is the one-dimensional, archetypal characters that surround Portman’s Nina. Kunis’ Lily is the classically aloof and insouciant “bad girl”, while Hershey plays the typically overbearing mother, and Cassel’s Thomas is the commonly lecherous but eccentrically brilliant theater director. There’s absolutely none of the deep psychological complexity of Lynch’s characters (compare the poignant lesbian relationship in Mulholland Drive to the completely superficial one here), nor that of Huppert’s Erika in The Piano Teacher. Likewise, too much of the drama seems dialed in, lacking in potency because it lacks surprise. Compare the climax of Black Swan at the performance, especially the suicide (which is banally and obviously foreshadowed in the “Swan Lake” allusion itself), with that of The Piano Teacher ’s ending, which is dramatically profound and genuinely provocative and surprising. The deeply perverse psychosexuality in The Piano Teacher also far outstrips the more superficial variety in Black Swan. Even the details, like the contrast between Lily’s dark eye makeup and Nina’s “virgin” face seems heavy-handed.
All that said, I think the film overcomes its flaws better than all of Aronofsky’s others outside of The Fountain. For all its predictability, I still found myself riveted, whether it was by Portman’s performance or just my natural proclivity for these types of surrealistic psychosexual thrillers—all the better that it centers around the nature of art and the obsessive compulsions of perfectionism. The climax is, in a word, epic, and Nina’s final breakdown at home contains some truly chilling moments. Yes, it’s an utterly superficial rendering of all its concepts. Perhaps the worst that can be said of Aronofsky is that he’s not a philosopher or psychologist, but he is a really talented filmmaker. Perhaps now what he should focus on is learning how to dramatize his themes and hide them, and his influences, a bit better.
1 Here is the comparison.. There’s also a YouTube video that parallels the Requiem for a Dream reference to Perfect Blue.